x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Feeling 'Ostalgie' for communist-era brands

East German products are being resurrected in response to a growing demand for goods that remind consumers of simpler times.

BERLIN // Plans to relaunch East Germany's Wartburg car brand have highlighted a renaissance of eastern products sparked by mounting nostalgia for the communist era 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Supermarkets have begun stocking resurrected eastern brands in response to growing demand in the former German Democratic Republic driven by a wave of Ostalgie, fond memories of the days when everyone had a guaranteed job and was looked after by the state, provided they did not disagree with it.

It is a far cry from the early 1990s when easterners ditched local products in favour of western food brands, televisions, washing machines and cars they knew from TV advertisements beamed across the Iron Curtain, and had spent decades yearning for. Anything eastern was tainted by communism and ridiculed as cheap and shoddy. The ubiquitous Trabant car with its temperamental two-stroke engine and plastic body became a legendary butt of jokes such as this one: "How do you double the value of a Trabant? Fill it with petrol. How do you quadruple the value? Put a banana on the back seat." The car now enjoys cult status.

"When the [Berlin] Wall came down there was a surge in demand for Western goods that had been out of people's reach and were seen as exotic," Nils Busch-Petersen, the head of Berlin's retailers' association, said in an interview. "A lot of companies went bust. But that trend has since been reversed. It's not just because of Ostalgie. It's also down to more professional marketing and greater awareness that these home-made products are good."

The Wartburg, known as the "working-class Mercedes", was a cut above the Trabant, and even West Germans acknowledge that it looked like a real car - from afar. Now media reports say Opel, which is being sold by its ailing parent company General Motors, is considering reviving the Wartburg as a budget car. The possible resurrection of the Wartburg is further evidence that eastern brands no longer carry a stigma. Some, such as Rotkäppchen sparkling wine from the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt and Radeberger beer from Dresden, have even managed to establish themselves in western Germany.

Others are successful locally because they trigger memories. "People are buying eastern grocery brands because they say it comes from here and it tastes like the old days. It's an Ostalgie effect," said Christoph Bauditz, head of accounting for Ostprodukte Versand, a mail-order company that sells eastern brands. "I was just six when the Wall came down so I don't care whether a product comes from the east or west. But my parents' generation does," Mr Bauditz said. "The fact that the big discount chains are starting to stock these products shows that the demand is back. Five or six years ago they wouldn't have bothered."

Firms are opting for trendy, retro-style packaging and have introduced slick advertising campaigns to lure customers by promising a taste of the old days. Vita Cola, the eastern version of Coca-Cola originally launched in 1958, is back on supermarket shelves vying with its rival. "It's a homage that triggers a pleasantly warm recognition, like meeting an old friend again," Vita Cola's maker gushes. One of Germany's biggest retail discount chains, Penny Markt, recently started a marketing campaign called "Eastern is Delicious" and now boasts that 30 per cent of its product lines in its more than 470 eastern stores are local brands.

It may seem surprising that many easterners look back wistfully at a time when they were not free to travel, had an extremely limited choice of goods, did not have a proper right to vote, were systematically spied on and could wreck their career or get locked up for expressing the wrong opinion. But many easterners are disenchanted with the harsh realities of the capitalist system that wrecked their economy in the 1990s. The region's unemployment rate at 13.3 per cent in May is almost twice as high as in the west.

Surveys regularly show easterners feel like second-class citizens, and the Left Party, the successor to East Germany's Communist Party, enjoys 25 per cent support in the region. The problems of everyday life in united Germany have left many yearning at least for a taste of yesteryear - the crunchy chocolate flakes made by Zetti, Spreewald pickled gherkins and Werder tomato ketchup that used to line the thinly stocked shelves in communist times.

"Werder ketchup is a classic and it's one of our best sellers," Mr Bauditz said. "We send loads of it to people who've moved away. There's simply no ketchup that tastes like it." In addition to ketchup, Mr Bauditz's company, which sends out 30,000 parcels a year, also sells T-shirts emblazoned with "Hero of Labour" and vintage East German sandals. Many regard their new-found brand loyalty as a way to support the local economy, which remains fragile despite having received transfers of an estimated ?1.5 trillion (Dh7.8 trillion) in state subsidies and benefit payments from the west since 1990.

A trade fair for eastern goods in Berlin this month attracted 20,000 visitors, most of them over 50, who scoured the stands for such forgotten brands as Pottsuse, a mixture of mincemeat and liver sausage. Mr Busch-Petersen, Berlin's retail association chief, thinks it will take at least another generation before people stop distinguishing between eastern and western brands. "The east-west division will gradually blur and be replaced by the regional identities that are normal in a federal state like Germany," he said. "But it will take time.

"We'll only achieve true unity if we stop pretending that we've already attained it. "There are still major differences between east and west. Our business leaders and top civil servants are still westerners, for example. "Easterners are still firmly in second place." dcrossland@thenational.ae